Does the Navy Need Fleet Week?

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Flight delays aren't the only high-profile problem created by budget sequestration. The military, facing mandatory spending cuts of 10 percent across most programs, has canceled several public events including New York Fleet Week, scheduled for May 23 to 30.

The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. Photographer: Gabriel R. Piper/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

It's not a surprising cut. Fleet Week is a nice-to-have celebration, not a core function of the Navy. Official reaction has been muted; the office of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg issued a statement saying "We understand the Navy's budgetary limitations and hope that the Fleet Week tradition can continue in 2014." (Bloomberg is the principal owner of Bloomberg L.P.) But should Fleet Week come back in 2014 -- or is its dispensability a sign that the event should be scrapped for good?

The widely cited cost for New York Fleet Week is $7 to $10 million, but a Navy official told me that only includes direct costs like berthing space, servicing docked ships, and housing for personnel who do not arrive by sea. It doesn't include implicit costs: Pay and benefits for the 3,000 to 4,000 Navy personnel who spend several days on duty in New York, and depreciation of equipment that is sent to the city.

Given those costs, why should we have Fleet Week? I spoke with three current and former Naval officials, who offered up six arguments:

1. It helps with recruitment. Or, at least, it used to. Lawrence Korb served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Early in his career, he was a Navy officer. He says Fleet Weeks played an important role after the Vietnam War when military recruitment was difficult.

"We were having real troubles with the all-volunteer military," he told me about the decision to launch the modern version of Fleet Week in the 1980s. "We were trying to get people to realize the opportunities" by bringing the Navy to them.

But now the military is not having trouble hitting its recruitment targets. As a result, Korb said, "the marginal benefits are less than they were 20, 30 years ago." Similarly, a current Navy official told me that Fleet Week today is "not so much" about recruitment.

2. It fosters a positive public perception of the Navy. This is the message I got repeatedly from the current Navy official and also from retired Admiral Gary Roughead, who served as chief of naval operations until his retirement in 2011. Roughead says Fleet Week "allows the American people to meet their Navy, connect with their Navy." The current Navy official says the event leaves the public "amazed and awed," both by the ships and the sailors.

OK. But why is this important? We don't send park rangers or IRS agents en masse to New York once a year to greet the public and show off the tools of their jobs. The public doesn't need to see and touch everything the government spends money on, and to the extent Fleet Week is an effort to foster public support for military spending, it might be counterproductive.

3. Sailors like it. The Navy official notes that beyond the public relations effort, "we use Fleet Weeks as quality-of-life visits for our sailors." Ship crews clearly desire assignments to attend Fleet Weeks -- San Francisco, San Diego and other cities also have them -- and prepare months in advance to qualify for them. So, you can think of Fleet Week as a part of the Navy compensation package. But would sailors really prefer a few days in New York over a few extra days of leave?

4. Fleet Weeks help develop useful relationships between the Navy, Coast Guard and local first responders. Admiral Roughead noted that the Navy has used San Francisco Fleet Week as an opportunity to run disaster response drills with local authorities. Roughead notes these links could prove useful in the event of a disaster requiring Navy assistance, as was provided after Hurricane Katrina and the September 11 attacks. On the other hand, running these sorts of drills does not require the whole surrounding Fleet Week apparatus.

5. Fleet Week is a moneymaker for host cities. The New York City Economic Development Corporation estimates that New York Fleet Week brings $20 million into the city's economy. Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose West Side Manhattan district includes many of the docks where Navy ships would normally be berthed, and many of the bars and hotels that won't see the business they expect, decried the cancellation as "yet another unforeseen consequence of the sequester."

But the purpose of the Navy isn't to do local economic development. As Korb noted, "These communities love it because they don't pay." Maybe, if New York wants fleet week to resume, it should be paying the Navy to come.

6. Fleet Week is fun. This might be the strongest argument for Fleet Week. Cities don't just hold parades and festivals as economic development measures, even if they do draw tourists. They also hold them because they are amenities that people enjoy, and Fleet Week is similar. The purely recreational case for Fleet Week is a reasonable one, so long as we can afford to spend federal tax dollars on recreation.

So, these are arguments that Fleet Week is more than just pork. But as military budgets are forced to shrink as a share of the economy (and they will be, even if sequestration is resolved and no matter which party is in power) these goals are likely to look increasingly non-core compared to defending the seas. Perhaps the Navy ought to be considering making its temporary cancellation of Fleet Week permanent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.